Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The language of dialogue or the rhetoric of dogmatism? An essay in styles

What is the purpose of writing? And should those who approach their writing as Catholics do it in a different way than others? And are the different avenues of the "modern means of communication" exempt from this question, or, at least, do they face it in a different way?

Certainly, one aspect of the electronic means of communication is the speed with which they can propagate an idea, both in terms of time (a mistaken observation can be widely spread before it is corrected, if it is corrected) and in terms of distance (an observation made in a particular context in one part of the world might be mis-read in a different part of the world, without knowledge of the particular context in which it was first made). This imposes on those who write for electronic media a particularly serious responsibility with regard to the content of what they write, because, when errors are committed of whatever kind, those errors can be spread so rapidly and so widely. As the Decree of the Second Vatican Council Inter Mirifica teaches:
..... in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual.
And so, in writing for the electronic media, there should first of all be a great anxiety to assure the truth and completeness of what is written. Care should be taken in reproducing material published elsewhere to check its authenticity and its completeness. In this regard, the dialogical possibilities of internet communications (in the case of blogs, the existence of the comments box or the opportunity to post further comment on another blog) becomes part of this anxiety. A dialogue can exist such that, where a matter is controverted, the participants engage in a shared seeking for what is true of it. This dialogue will only exist if all who take part in the dialogue do indeed see it in this way and are willing to respect that others are taking part in it in this way.

This anxiety for the truth of what is written depends upon a willingness to be focussed on the substance of the matter under discussion and an avoidance of the temptation to personalise attacks. This represents the second strand in the short citation above from Inter Mirifica. The "how" of the communication should respect the dignity of those who will receive it, and also the dignity of those who are taking part in the dialogue that makes up that communication. Writers should avoid, for example, attributing to others motivations and opinions that have not been expressed by those other people, with its consequent misleading of the inhabitants of the aether about the motives and opinions of that those other people.

Following these two strands of the teaching of Inter Mirifica will lead, I think, to a certain style in writing for the electronic media. I would like to suggest that Catholics writing for the different forms of the electronic media should be trying to manifest this style as part of their bringing to their public lives the experience of their living of their faith. I do not know that I have always adhered to it, though comments received from time to time referring to thoughtfulness in posts suggests some degree of success on my part. Among the means of electronic communication, it is perhaps blogging that lends itself most to this style, where the character-limited brevity of Twitter provides a significant barrier to it.

I hope that readers do see in what I write a language of dialogue and not a rhetoric of dogmatism.

[As a PS: Is Catholic blogging really about the wielding of power as suggested in one paragraph of this post?]

1 comment:

EFpastor emeritus said...

Sadly, robust comments are often misrepresented, in some quarters as "bigoted or uncharitable" to use a phrase often used by "liberals" when their ideas are opposed.